Southwest’s Newest Museum Showcases Contemporary Art in Historic Space

Installation view, Christopher Myers, What’s Going On. Courtesy of Chi Lam

By Southwester Staff 

On October 27, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser cut a red ribbon to open Washington, DC’s newest museum, the Rubell Museum DC at 65 I St. SW, the site of the historic Randall School. 

Dedicated exclusively to contemporary art, the Rubell Museum reinvigorates one of Southwest’s only remaining buildings that pre-date the urban renewal of the 1950’s. The school’s architecture is preserved across the museum’s 32,000 square feet, which includes a bookstore and a terrace. Former classrooms and teachers’ offices have been transformed into 24 galleries, and the school’s 4,000-square-foot auditorium was retained to provide space for large-scale artworks and performances.

The museum presents exhibitions of works drawn from the Rubell family’s collection of contemporary paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, and site-specific work by American and international artists. Admission is free for DC residents and Ward 6 residents will have access to expanded opportunities to engage with artists. 

The family’s art collection began shortly after Mera and Don Rubell married in 1964, when they started visiting artists’ studios and collecting art in New York. Their son, Jason Rubell, joined them in 1982 in building the collection, creating the exhibitions, and developing museums in Miami and DC. 

“The museum’s historic setting in a place of learning invites the public to explore what artists can teach us about the world we live in and the issues with which we are wrestling as individuals and as a society,” said Mera Rubell. “As a former teacher, I see artists and teachers playing parallel roles as educators and in fostering civic engagement. With the preservation of this building, we honor the legacy of the Randall School’s many teachers, students, and parents.”

The Georgian-revival style building was first opened in 1906 as the Cardozo Elementary School, a school for Black children. The building became Randall Junior High in 1927, and during years of racial segregation served Southwest’s Black population until the school ceased operation in 1978. From 1982 to 2004, it had a variety of uses as artist studios and a homeless shelter for men. The Corcoran Gallery of Art purchased the building from the city in 2006 and sold it to the Rubell’s development group in 2010. 

A dozen years later, the transformed space reopened to buzzing crowds taking in an opening exhibition that brings together more than 190 works by 51 artists who are responding to pressing social and political issues that continue to affect society today. Future exhibits will showcase artworks in the Rubell’s collection that provide perspectives, insights and commentary on contemporary ideas and issues. 

The redevelopment of the Randall School property also includes a new 492-unit apartment building, Gallery 64, adjacent to the museum. Twenty percent of the units are dedicated to affordable housing. The 12-story apartment building is scheduled to open in 2023.

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